Everything won’t be magically better on Friday, but I think that we all agree that 2020 has been a whopper. Some of it we knew was coming, like Donald Trump’s antics when he lost the election, and some of it was less certain, like the enormity of the pandemic. Many people won’t be sad to see 2020 in the rearview mirror – except for maybe online retailers and billionaires – but among the wreckage, this teacher sees one lesson that we can learn.
For me, the bad part started when students were sent home last March. COVID-19 came to the US, and schoolhouses were closed soon after the first cases were acknowledged. What we call “school” went virtual. But schools weren’t prepared for that, and teachers weren’t trained for it. I was luckier than most in that I had taught online courses before, but the experience didn’t make me want to do it again. What we’ve experienced in 2020 with the lack of student engagement and the psychological distance between the teacher and students— I felt that when I taught online creative writing courses in 2007 and 2008. I knew about the problems that were coming.
In my main teaching gig, I can truly say that I like the energy in an American high school. I’ve taught mostly twelfth graders for the last decade, and I especially enjoy their energy in the spring as graduation approaches. Last spring, though, prom was cancelled, and commencement was postponed then downsized. That hurt. For my Creative Writing students, our annual Sketch Show couldn’t happen, our literary magazines went unsold, and the Alabama Book Festival and the Flimp Festival were cancelled. That hurt, too. From home, I tried to teach online while also navigating my own children through it at the same time. It didn’t go well. I know these circumstances don’t compare to losing a loved one to COVID, being laid off, or having a business close down, but they do matter. (In my opinion, one of the worst things we can do with suffering is make it comparative.)
But it’s like I tell my students: a failure is only a failure if you don’t learn something from it. If we’re willing to learn from this year’s failures, we’ll see that 2020 has provided a powerful lesson for the education community. In recent years, corporate interests, reformers, and anti-union types had been pushing online education as the wave of the future. This concept touted efficiency and “choice” with a “course in a can” and software that grades assignments instantly, while the teacher would become a “content delivery specialist.” However, teachers and our unions have known that these reforms would cut teacher jobs, leave remaining teachers with huge “classes,” and ultimately, be unsatisfactory to students and their families. 2020 has shown the nation what teachers knew all along: online learning is not suited to large-scale, mainstream schooling. The flaws have been glaring and obvious. The elimination of social interaction, the problem of childcare, the presence of technology glitches, and the need for on-site assistance have led to frustration, loneliness, depression, and fatigue. Student engagement has plummeted, and course failures have skyrocketed. Online learning should be a component of education in the future, but it can’t replace being in-person on a school campus. And I’ve noticed, during the last nine months, that those previously vocal education reformers haven’t been on the TV news saying, “See, look how well it’s working! We told you it would!” Nope, they’ve been mighty quiet.
When the pandemic is behind us and schools are fully operational again, there will be people who’ll pop up and declare that what we should learn other lessons instead. One alternative lesson will be that the failures of virtual learning were caused by a lack of training for teachers— and those folks will have training products to sell. Another will be that the failures were caused by inadequate technology— and those folks will have technology products to sell. Yet another will proclaim that we’ve worked out the kinks now, so it’s time to invest in streamlining the system we’ve run roughshod over unexpected terrain— and those folks will also have products to sell. The people who’ve invested money and time in promoting and selling online education aren’t going to recognize defeat, pack up, and go home. They’re businesspeople, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists – not educators – and they’ll see opportunity in our post-pandemic disarray.
Unlike those businesspeople, I am a teacher (and a parent), who has seen the ground-level realities firsthand. The truths I’m sharing are simple, and I don’t have anything to sell. First, in-person learning is superior to online learning for the vast majority of children. Second, having children on-site at a school is better for most families. Third, children learn more than just their courses’ subject matter at school. Since March, teachers’ work has been less about teaching and more about content delivery. Our ability to enforce guidelines and policies has been severely hampered. Our choices for connecting with and motivating students are severely limited. Put bluntly, teachers do a better job in-person with students in our classrooms. And that can happen again when we’ve got this terrible disease under control.
In the meantime, I hope that we’ll move into 2021 wiser from this experience. There will be voices in our nation and in our communities that urge us to believe the rhetoric that says: so much has gone online, so education should, too. Now, however, we’ve seen it for ourselves, and we know about the flaws and drawbacks, especially for students who lack broadband access, a home computer, or parental support. And most especially for students who need social services and special education services. We’ll have more virtual schooling to do in the first half of 2021, but I hope that administrators nationwide are considering what will happen afterward. More than anything, I hope they don’t forget what they’ve witnessed as their anxious deliberations about how to get us back on track in 2021 get underway.